Forget about the title of this exhibition, because the idea behind it is actually great. Curated by Jacqueline Riding, the Foundling Museum, London has a new exhibition exploring attitudes to love, desire and female “respectability” in the Georgian period through the paintings of the artist Joseph Highmore (1692-1780). Highmore was a successful painter whose art underwent a profound change thanks to his involvement with the new Foundling Hospital in the 1740s. Highmore’s work with the Foundling and his new paintings started a debate about women’s vulnerability to sexual assault and the Foundling’s exhibition is the first major assessment of Highmore’s work for many years.
The exhibition runs until 7 Jan 2018, and there are several events around the exhibition that might be of interest to WSG blog readers. There is a talk on 21 October by Hallie Rubenhold on Georgian courtesans and prostitutes, and a symposium on 20 November, which will also feature a tour of the exhibition. For further information and to find out how to get to the Foundling, see its website.
WSG is pleased to announce the publication of member Julie Peakman’s latest book, Amatory Pleasures: Explorations in Eighteenth-Century Sexual Culture (Bloomsbury, 2016), which I can already feel might make a few more adventurous scholarly types’ Christmas stockings come 25th December. It examines a broad range of sexual activity, from the “respectable” to the covert, and is available in hardback at £65 and paperback at £19.99.
For Julie’s new book, Bloomsbury have kindly offered WSG members 20% off. If you think you’d like to hear more talks on cultural history, and get similar news and offers like this via email, you might consider coming to one of WSG’s seminars this year or becoming a member of the group. Readers of this post might also enjoy the Notches blog, which posts regular articles on the history of sexuality, across all regions, periods, and themes.
This year, WSG’s annual trip was to the Wellcome Collection, nr Euston, London. WSG member Marion Durnin recalls the outing:
“Passing under Anthony Gormley’s figure suspended from the ceiling of the Wellcome Collection entrance, our group met for coffee excited by the stylish surroundings.
We were warmly welcomed by Dr Christopher Hilton, Senior Archivist of the Wellcome Library who provided a potted history of the Wellcome Trust from Henry Wellcome’s upbringing in Wisconsin, to his meeting with Silas Burroughs which led to the formation of Burroughs Wellcome & Co. in 1882. First to the market in the manufacture of drugs, they led the way in medical research to become front runners of the British pharmaceutical industry. Dr Hilton’s witty and informative account revealed we owe the word ‘tabloid’ to Wellcome and Burroughs, being a combination of the words ‘tablet’ and ‘alkaloid’ used to denote the firm’s pills.
Success in business was not accompanied by happiness in Wellcome’s private life. He married Thomas Bernardo’s daughter, Gwen Maud Syrie soon after their meeting in Khartoum in 1901. But Wellcome’s passion for travelling and collecting curios, creating in effect a ‘national attic’ cost him his marriage. Following his divorce, Henry buried himself relentlessly in his work. This resulted in the amassing of a vast collection of artefacts rivalling the largest museums in Europe. The riches of this collection have been brought to the public by the Wellcome Trust. Though primarily focused on the scientific and medical, the contents touch on all aspects of life, a boon for research in many fields.
In demonstration of this, Dr Hilton presented items from the Wellcome manuscript archive of special interest to our group. Alongside handwritten medicinal remedies (1647-1722) written by Elizabeth Sleigh and Felicia Whitfield, are their food recipes, giving precise detail of the lives of these women. The instruction on how ‘To Pull a Tooth’ alarmingly commences with ‘Seeth the brains of an hare in red wine; and anoint the tooth therewith…’ The recipe for Sack Posset required, for openers, ‘2 quarts of pure good cream’ and a guide on how ‘To Roast a Large Pike’ is but one gem among many.
We viewed the account book (1790-1804) of a medical practitioner in Northamptonshire (thought to be Timothy Watkins) containing details of the mothers, the births and inoculations along with precise accounts of income and expenditure.
The library reading rooms are open to all and the scope of works ranges far beyond science and medicine. Innovative design is all around; even the library shelves are illustrated and works of art, classic and contemporary, abound. Library Assistant Edward Bishop showed us a dramatic seventeenth century painting of ‘A Troupe of Travelling Performers including a Toothdrawer’ (after Theodor Rombouts) and a ball gown by artist Susie Freeman which on closer inspection is decorated with 6,500 wrapped contraceptive pills.
Following lunch Visitor Experience Assistant Sarah Bentley gave us a guided tour of particular items in the Permanent Exhibition which included a Mesopotamian amulet, a scold’s bridle of Brussels, with metal horns, used to publicly humiliate women (1550-1775). This proved a profoundly unsettling sight as did a brass corset with wasp waist and Chinese slippers which demanded foot binding.
We finished the day with everyone planning to return as it seemed we had only barely touched on the intriguing and rich resources housed in the Wellcome Collection and Library. We are grateful to the staff at the Wellcome and to WSG committee member Lois Chaber for arranging such a worthwhile and fascinating outing.”
…and thanks to Marion for writing this account and taking the accompanying photos.
Long-time WSG member Julie Peakman’s latest book is out this month! Peg Plunkett: Memoirs of a Whore is published by Quercus and is available from all good bookshops and online for £20. Peg tells the story of one of the Georgian era’s most famous courtesans, based on her memoirs which caused a scandal when published in 1795, and Julie’s own extensive research.
Julie is a well-known historian of eighteenth-century culture and an expert in the history of sexuality. An Honorary Fellow of Birkbeck College, University of London, her previous books Lascivious Bodies (2004) and The Pleasure’s All Mine (2013), have both been critical and popular successes.